Patrick Pearse: Nature lover and warmonger

Patrick Pearse was eloquently passionate about the natural world. But he also celebrated a peculiarly harsh vision of it, as a new exhibition at the Pearse Museum illustrates

Patrick Pearse (right) with his brother, Willie, in the gardens at St Enda’s. Photograph: Pearse Museum/OPW

Patrick Pearse (right) with his brother, Willie, in the gardens at St Enda’s. Photograph: Pearse Museum/OPW

 

The relationship between our national identity and the natural world is tricky and complex. On the one hand the great 18th-century bardic lament Caoine Cill Cháis seems to identify the nation with our ancient forests, and to draw a parallel between their destruction and the dispossession and slaughter of Irish people by colonists. On the other hand most 19th- and early-20th-century naturalists and conservationists in Ireland came predominantly from among the Anglo-Irish, and were not exactly racy of the soil. And most of our current habitats and wildlife regulation originated in Brussels.

Several writers, myself included, have suggested that recent conservation controversies draw at least some of their venom from a perception that cherishing biodiversity is not really part of the national tradition. The rhetoric used by opponents of turf-cutting restrictions explicitly states that such regulation is a “foreign” imposition.

So it was an interesting challenge to find, at an excellent new exhibition at the Pearse Museum, at St Enda’s Park in Dublin, that the quintessential 1916 patriot was eloquently passionate about his love for the natural world. Pearse made outdoor encounters with nature, gardening, and indoor study of the natural sciences central pillars of the innovative prospectus for his remarkable school.

Indeed, this centrality of nature in education was one of the main reasons he moved the school from Cullenswood, in Rathmines, to the Hermitage, which stood on the then largely undeveloped slopes of the Dublin Mountains above Rathfarnham. In a 1910 article he stresses the suitability of the new location for “that spacious outdoor life, that intercourse with the wild things of the woods and wastes . . . which ought to play so large a part in the education of a boy”.

He writes with infectious enthusiasm of the “life out there, in the woods, in the grass, in the river . . . I don’t think more of wild life can be crowded into 50 acres anywhere else so near Dublin . . . The shyer creatures of the hills and mountains abide with us or come to visit us as if they felt at home here.

“With a smothered cry a partridge or snipe will suddenly rise from your feet in the wood; when you come through the fields on some wide space of the stream you will not seldom surprise a heron rising on slow wings and drifting lazily away; often a coot will plash in the water. But the glory of our stream is its kingfishers.” He had seen as many as five of these birds at a time there, “like so many quivering blue flames”.

St Enda’s classrooms had display cases of insects, birds, mammals and plants; classes kept natural history logbooks. Sadly, none of this survives, but the museum curator, Brian Crowley, has found contemporary stuffed birds and botanic specimens to re-create the atmosphere.

Pearse made a logbook entry from 1909 in another article that gives some flavour of his approach: “Milo McGarry found a fine specimen of a Red Admiral Butterfly in the school garden today. It was dead already (we are under geasa not to kill wild things) so Arthur Cole undertook to mount it for the museum.”

This geasa (taboo) against killing animals is curious, as this was a time when naturalists embraced hunting and fishing. One might also have thought that hunting formed an essential part of the “hardening” Pearse said was one of the benefits of direct contact with nature.

Pearse also vividly celebrates a peculiarly harsh vision of the natural world: “So day and night there is red murder in the greenwood, and in every greenwood in the world. It is murder and death that make possible the terrible beautiful thing we call physical life. Life springs from death, life lives on death . . . All of which would be very terrible were death really an evil thing . . .”

Nature’s mayhem

There is a lesson for us in nature’s mayhem, he continues. Peace is an illusion; courage on the battlefield is the supreme male virtue. This echoes Pearse’s most troubling essay, Peace and the Gael, which he wrote just months before the blood sacrifice of 1916. There he extols the holocaust of the first World War as an enriching of the old soil of Europe with the blood of its young men, and yearns for the “exhilaration of war” to revisit his native land.

The “greenwood murder” passage is a salutary reminder of how Darwin’s theory of evolution, with which Pearse was familiar from his father’s library, can be deformed in the interests of toxic ideologies. The Nazis were guilty of this, and were also enthusiastic about exposing their young people to the natural world. Environmental awareness is not always on the side of the angels.

For Brian Crowley, who has written a current article on Pearse and nature for Sherkin Comment, the contrast between the gentle ethic of the geasa against killing and the ultraviolent view of nature is “pure Pearse – he was a man of many contradictions”.

Crowley says there is no evidence to suggest that Pearse was an early conservationist, although he wrote at a time when we were losing some of our emblematic species – eagles, for example. But he points to multiple references in Pearse’s fiction that reinforce the impression of a man who was keenly observant of natural phenomena.

His well-known and poignant story Eoghainín na nÉan, for example, is beautifully woven into the migration of swallows. The Wood is also saturated with wildlife references, and it opens with a dramatic account of the geological and biological formation of a landscape.

Whatever our view of Pearse, it is hard not to agree with a line that Crowley highlights, and that echoes Aldo Leopold’s view that humans and nature form part of the same community: If our children “observe their fellow-citizens of the grass and woods and water as wisely and as lovingly as they should, I think they will learn much”. It would be a celebration of Pearse to incorporate this principle into our national education and our national ethos.

Sense of wonder: Keeping Pearse’s vision alive

The nature room in the courtyard at the Pearse Museum displays a user-friendly cornucopia of stuffed animals and birds, insects in amber, cuddly toys and fish tanks.

In keeping with Patrick Pearse’s vision of nature education, primary pupils visit the room regularly on tours, but the guide, Martina Halpin, makes the sadly familiar point that hardly any secondary schools visit: “Because of their curriculum they are in the classroom all the time. That’s a pity.”

What the patriot dead would make of this situation is a moot point.

She says that the children are often unfamiliar with even the commonest animals on display, such as the fox. They are sometimes even a little scared of them at first, but some of them love to learn the gory details of how a stuffed specimen has to be gutted and cleaned.

“Their main interest, though, is in the living things we can show them,” Halpin says. “Local children come back repeatedly to watch tadpoles develop into frogs. Last year we collected caterpillars from nettles in the park, and kids were fascinated to watch them pupate and then emerge as tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies.”

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